Originally a surgeon in England, MacKenzie served in the Boer War and World War I. MacKenzie abandoned medicine and joined H.S. Colt, the first architect to devote a career solely to designing golf courses, and began working in the British Isles. His greatest work was to come after he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s. By the end of his career, MacKenzie had laid out some 400 golf courses.
MacKenzie’s book, Golf Architecture, published in 1920, was the first to present and explain the fundamentals of golf course design. MacKenzie combined modest golf holes with more heroic challenges, always allowing room for the lesser player to enjoy the game.
MacKenzie’s forte was his greens. He refrained from flattening natural undulations and contrived to create artificial undulations that were “indistinguishable from nature.” MacKenzie practiced before the era of bulldozers, which left him little capacity to force golf holes where they didn’t belong. His approach to providing fair and strategic golf without disrupting the site is a model for golf course design that lasts to this day.
MacKenzie died of heart failure on January 6, 1934, in Santa Cruz, Calif. His ashes were spread over the Pasatiempo golf course. He left behind a wonderful legacy of golf architecture. During his final years, he wrote a book, The Spirit of St. Andrews, and it included a foreword by Bobby Jones. It was never published during his lifetime, but a copy was found by his step-grandson and was published in 1995. It gave those who admire his work one last treasure from a man whose golf courses will be treasured for generations to come.
Like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, MacKenzie’s work has been better appreciated following his death. Royal Melbourne has been called the best course south of the equator. Routinely, 10 of his courses are rated in the top 100 in the world by the major golf magazines.
Photo credit: Julian P. Graham